Digital Nation: Crank Up The PC, Dude

For the first time, computer makers are marketing their machines as stereo systems.

(This is another in a continuing series of reports about music on

the Internet.)

Staff Writer Chris Nelson reports:

You might think Syracuse University senior J.C. Chan would have his

listening needs all sewn up with his 50-CD changer. At the touch of a

remote, any song from a hefty library of music blares from his speaker

stacks.

But Chan is also an MP3 user. He wants his music at the click of a

mouse. And for the first time, mainstream computer manufacturers want

to give it to him.

"It's not just a word processor or Internet connection now," Dell

Computer spokesperson Tad Druart said. "You'll see more people put

more money into computers that would have gone into stereos."

People like Chan. He said he's waiting for a 22-gigabyte hard drive to

come down in price before buying one and loading it up with tunes

compressed in the near-CD-quality MP3 format.

A computer engineering major who, like his housemates, talks on a

wireless phone rather than a land line, Chan has about 10 hours of

music on his current hard drive, mostly hip-hop from the likes of the

Wu-Tang Clan and "Hard Knock Life"

(RealAudio excerpt) singer Jay-Z.

If he filled even half of the 22-gig drive on his wish list with MP3s,

he'd be packing more than 180 hours of music.

And Dell wants to sell him its 37.5-gig Dimension drive, which is

being bundled with MusicMatch's MP3 ripping and organizing software.

Meanwhile, Gateway is advertising its Performance PC line as "The

ultimate MP3 multimedia system." HP is targeting its new rewriteable

CD burners at music fans. And Compaq offered a free Rio portable MP3

player with certain systems in a promotion last summer.

In the past, computer companies have aimed their wares at such niche

users as video-game fans and people with home offices; Apple Macintosh

computers have long been the standard for home studio recording and

visual arts.

Now companies are targeting music listeners. But whether computers

will one day vie head-on with stereos for the home-listening market is

another question.

"I don't think you'll ever get to the point where you'll have the

marriage of an audiophile and his computer," said Mark Fisher,

publisher of the stereo-aficionado magazine Absolute Sound.

Among the audiophiles' complaints: MP3s cannot match CD sound

(which many, in turn, say can't match vinyl's sound, but that's

another story), and computer speakers are not up to the challenge of

offering high-quality sound.

Beth Morrison, a sophomore at George Washington University in

Washington, D.C., said several of her friends collect MP3s, but they

see it as a novelty, particularly because the sound on laptops and

desktop machines is often tinny.

But as speaker quality rises, computer companies such as Dell will be

trying to woo Morrison's and her friends' younger siblings with

stereolike PCs.

The growing interest in portable MP3 players is driving the market for

PCs as stereos, Druart said. By the holiday season, several new

portables from RCA and others will have been added to store shelves.

Chan estimates that three-quarters of his friends listen to MP3s, and

not just gear-heads like himself, but premed students and others.

"Basically it's becoming as common as if you know how to use e-mail,"

he said.

If that's the case, then firing up music software may someday be as

common as popping open that CD drawer or dropping the needle on a

record.

* * *

A week before their respective CDs hit stores, tracks from retro-soul

rockers the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and R&B singer

Ronnie Spector are for sale in MP3 format. "Fudgy the Whale"

comes from Spencer's Sideways Soul: In a Dancehall Style, recorded with the

Dub Narcotic Sound System. Spector's "You Can't Put Your Arms

Around a Memory" is from her She Talks to Rainbows EP. The cuts

are available for $1.49 each at CDuctive.com. The CDs are both due

Tuesday. ...

Bob Dylan has added a rare recording of "Highlands" to the live

RealAudio page at bobdylan.com. The song — a marathon 16 minutes

on the 1997 album Time out of Mind — was whittled down to

10 minutes during the July performance offered online. ...

Bim Skala Bim and Lori McKenna are among the dozens of

New England artists featured on Boston.com's new MP3 site

(mp3.boston.com). The site is operated by the Boston Globe. ...

MP3.com last week announced the formation of MP3radio.com. The new

subsidiary will team up with radio stations in 12 U.S. regions to

launch new websites by the end of October featuring MP3 downloads,

webcasts and other events.

Grunge-rockers Bush will begin previewing their single "The

Chemicals Between Us" Wednesday (Sept. 8) at EMusic.com. The cut will

be available in streaming MP3 and RealAudio. "Obviously this is a

powerful means of reaching people with our music," singer Gavin

Rossdale said in a statement. Bush's album The Science of

Things hits stores Oct. 26.